Since we toured Terezin three weeks ago, I have been haunted by the idea of genocide. How could Hitler and his government decide that a whole “race” of people, including even the children, was irredeemable and should be exterminated like vermin?
I can understand wanting a particular individual to die. Twice in my own life I hated a person who seemed fixated on doing things that ruined my life or the life of someone I loved, and I could not think of any way to escape. I wished that individual were dead. I could not feel empathy. At least I was lucky enough to have the moral sense and common sense not to act out of my fear and hatred.
But I cannot imagine what it would be like to hate a whole category of people, millions of strangers I had never even met, human beings with virtues and failings and desires and moments of kindness and insight. What would it be like to hate them all, to believe they do not deserve respect, and to cooperate in a program to persecute and murder them?
What would it be like to feel the blanket fear and hatred that many Christians felt for Jews from the Middle Ages through the 19th century? That Nazis and their supporters felt for Jews during the 1930’s and 1940’s? That some Americans and Europeans feel for immigrants today?
Then I came to this week’s Torah portion, Noach. How could the God-character in this mythic story decide that only Noah and his immediate family were worth saving, while the rest of the human species was irredeemable and should be exterminated?
So I wrote a new post this week, about final solutions and how they failed.
The Flood: Not a Final Solution
And God saw how the wickedness of humankind on the earth was abundant, and how all the forms of [human] designs were only wicked all the time. And God regretted that [God] had made humankind on the earth, and [God’s] heart became saddened.” (Genesis 6:5)
This expression of regret at the end of the first Torah portion, Bereishit, launches the story of Noah and the ark in the next portion, Noach. The God-character notices that although Noah is good enough, humans in general have become violent and destructive.
And God saw the earth, and hey! Nishchatah, because all flesh hishchit on the earth. And God said to Noah: “The end of all flesh is coming before me, because the earth is filled with violence on account of them, so hey! Here I am, mashchitam along with the earth. Make for yourself an ark … (Genesis/Bereishit 6:12-14)
nishchatah (נִשְׁחָתָה) = it had been ruined, destroyed. (A form of the verb shachat, שָׁחַת = lay waste, ruin, inflict calamity and death.)
hischit (הִשִׁית) = has inflicted ruin. (Another form of the verb shachat.)
mashchitam (מַשְׁחִיתָם) = destroying them. (Another form of the verb shachat.)
The divine answer to the violent destruction perpetrated by the human species is to drown the perpetrators—and all the other land animals—and start again. After the flood is over, Noah sacrifices the extra animals that God told him to bring on board. The God-character smells the smoke of the offering and has a second change of heart.
And God smelled the soothing odor, and God thought: “Never again will I curse the land because of humankind, since the forms of its mind are wicked from its youth. And never again will I strike down all life, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)
Then God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants, promising never to flood the whole world again. Next the God-character blesses Noah and his sons, confirms that they will rule over all other animals, and changes the rules about killing. In the Garden of Eden, God declared that all creatures that move on the land or fly in the sky, including humans, could eat only seed-bearing plants and trees (Genesis 1:29-30, 2:16). Now God permits the consumption of meat.
Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat, like green vegetation; I have given you everything. However, flesh with the living soul in it, its blood, you must not eat. (Genesis 9:3-4)
This new rule indicates that part of the destruction and violence that prompted the flood consisted of carnivorous behavior, by humans and by other animals. God decides to compromise and let humans kill and eat animals, as long as they respect the animals’ souls by not eating their blood.1
The other reason for the flood appears to be that humans were killing other humans. God warned Cain to resist this impulse in vain. (Genesis 4:6-12) After the flood God puts the warning a different way.
Whoever sheds human blood, by a human shall his blood be shed; because [God] made humankind in the image of God. (Genesis 9:6)
Perhaps the God-character hopes that humans would improve if they were allowed a limited measure of violence concerning other animals, and allowed to execute anyone convicted of murder. God also reminds Noah and his family that murder is prohibited because humankind was made in the image of God.
With the right guidance, the God-character now believes, humans can learn to avoid the worst behavior. Although humans have evil impulses, they are not all bad. Since God gives humankind another chance, God probably sees that good impulses are also part of human nature.
It is a start. As the book of Genesis continues, God gives humans more rules to follow, and notices more humans who are virtuous.
Unfortunately, when people in power “play God” they often act more like the God-character who drowns the world than the God-character who tries to help humans improve.
The Holocaust: An Attempt at a Final Solution
In Prague, nobody forgets what happened 60 years ago. In the train station I saw a memorial to Jewish parents forced to leave their children and board trains for concentration camps when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. On the way to Wenceslaus Square my husband and I passed a former Jewish bank that the gestapo used to interrogate and torture Czech Jews from 1939 to 1945.
One of the six synagogues in the old Jewish quarter of the city, the Pinkas Synagogue, is now a Holocaust memorial, its walls covered with the names of about 78,000 Czech Jews who perished.
At the Museum of Decorative Arts we saw personal treasures, from paintings to teacups, that Jews had packed in their suitcases when the Nazis forced them to abandon their homes. When the Jews arrived at Terezin or another holding camp, the gestapo went through their suitcases and confiscated everything of value. The Nazis kept records, so the exhibit identified the original owners of the items.
On a clear day in October we toured Terezin (renamed Theresienstadt by the Nazis), about 60 km (37 miles) from Prague. On the way the bus passed potato, cabbage, and mustard fields. The mustard was blooming yellow.
The bus drove through an entrance gap in the outer walls: a brick berm covered with grass, a narrow moat, and a second brick and grass berm. The Hapsburg emperor Joseph II built these fortifications in 1784 to turn a country village into a military base. Inside the outer walls he added barracks and stables for a cavalry unit. The Hapsburgs also built a prison next door, encircled by a similar fortification. When Germany captured Czechoslovakia in 1939, the new rulers continued to use the large fort as an army base and confine political prisoners in the small fort. Then Adolph Eichmann, who was in charge of the logistics for mass deportations of Jews to concentration and extermination camps, picked Terezin for another purpose.
The “Final Solution” that the top Nazi administrators agreed on in January of 1942 was genocide: extinction of the entire “race” of Jews. There were so many Jews, in all the territory Germany had conquered, that Eichmann had to do it in stages. The first stage was to remove Jews from their homes and transport them to collection centers like Terezin.
At Terezin, Jews had enough uncertainty about their future to put up with SS orders and restrictions, hoping that the Allies would soon win the war, hoping that when groups of residents were loaded on trains bound for Auschwitz and other camps their lives would be bearable. They did not know their families and friends were going to extermination camps.
On our tour of Terezin, we saw the former barracks where old Jews were assigned to unheated stables and attics, so that they would die quickly by freezing in the winter or by heat stroke in the summer. We saw drawings by Jewish children and drawings by Jewish professional artists, including depictions of gaunt residents waiting in line for thin soup ladled out from a barrel. We saw the cemetery, where every morning hearses brought bodies to be dissected, cremated, and buried. We saw the railroad tracks where newcomers arrived at Terezin and where Terezin residents were herded into cattle cars bound for extermination camps.
Hitler’s government had two cold-blooded reasons to persecute Jews. One was to confiscate Jewish wealth (everything from money and property to the gold fillings in their teeth) in order to fund the German war of conquest. The other was to feed the myth of Aryan superiority and inspire enough hatred so the German population would be willing to go to war, put up with wartime deprivations, and keep the Fuhrer in power. Escalating the hatred meant escalating the persecution, and eventually murder, of the people chosen as scapegoats.
Hitler revived hatred of Jews in the first place not just by reviling them, but by blaming them for unemployment, poverty, and crime. Today some of the political parties in the United States and Europe blame immigrants for unemployment, poverty, and crime.
The God-character in the Torah portion Noach is right about humankind: the forms of its mind are wicked from its youth. (Genesis 8:21) And the most wicked designs come not from the scapegoats, but from the oppressors.
May all humans realize that there is never a “final solution”, that mass murder only increases the evil in the world. And may we all accept that human nature is a mixture of good and bad, so the best course of action is to encourage good deeds, by education and by example. Then we will become the image of God after the Flood, the wiser, more mature God-character with a better understanding of human nature.
- For more on the prohibition against eating blood, see my post Re-eih & Acharei Mot: The Soul in the Blood.